BLOG 2008 Q4


Heath Ledger as the Joker

The Dark Knight, starring the late Heath Ledger, has been picked in the UK as the best movie experience of 2008

Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton reading
Tolstoy's War and Peace

One of the commonest complaints by cultural doomsayers is that nobody reads good books any more. Yet in the past two years, the Oprah Book Club in America recommended Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and three novels by William Faulkner, and they all made the bestseller lists. The widespread view that societies are dumbing down, educational standards are crumbling and people's ability to concentrate is collapsing cannot be true across the board. A significant number of people want more intellectually demanding things to see and hear, not fewer.
John Parker
Intelligent Life

Toyota robot
Toyota robot

Agni 1

Indian Agni missile

India Times
Tackling Pakistan

2008 December 29

Israel Trying to Prevent Another Hizbullah
Meir Javedanfar, Jerusalem Post
One reason Israel has targeted Hamas's military infrastructure in such an overwhelming manner is because Jerusalem does not want the movement to turn into another Hizbullah. Israel does not want Hamas to develop a deterrence capability. Fatah probably shares Israel's concerns. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been trying for the last two months to reach a deal with Hamas on the issue of presidential elections after his term expires on January 9. Had Hamas been able to develop its deterrence capability and military infrastructure, it would have been much more difficult for Fatah and Egypt to create some kind of reconciliation in Palestine.

The Recklessness of Hamas
Seth Freedman, The Guardian
The last time I visited the embattled town of Sderot, I encountered a furious young resident who spat out his solution for his community's plight. "We have to kill all the militants [who are launching the Kassams]", he declared. "It's the only way to bring quiet back to the town. They had the chance to stop the rockets after we pulled out of Gaza, but they chose to carry on. I know they're suffering in Gaza too, but that doesn't excuse helping the terrorists attack us — they bring it on themselves".

2008 December 27

Iraq: Mission Accomplished?
Christians in Iraq face a "bleak future," said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, a nonprofit group that helps Iraqi Christians. "We are heading for a demise," he said. "It's getting to the point where it might be an ethnic cleansing in the future." Daily intimidation has cowed the Christian community, with crosses removed from churches, priests afraid to wear clerical garb, the faithful reluctant to attend church, and churches hiring security guards. Iraq's Christian population has fallen from 1.4 million in 2003 to between 500,000 and 700,000 more recently, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

2008 Boxing Day

Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time
By Karen Armstrong (Harper 2006)

AR  Well judged and sympathetic portrait that makes a statement:
By prevailing Arab standards, Muhammad's message was tolerant, open, enlightened, and friendly to Jews Christians, women, and people of other backgrounds and opinions. Modern Islamists have utterly misrepresented the message and the recommendations.
New York Times review

2008 December 19

Einsteins spukhafte Fernwirkung gestern, heute und morgen
Physikalisches Weihnachtskolloquium mit Prof. Anton Zeilinger, Universität Wien und Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Großer Hörsaal der Physik, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

AR  A fine lecture, cultivated and amusing, though no new physical content for me, the ambitious autodidact. Still, an excellent way to round off the working year.

Spooky Action At A Distance
Colin Barras, New Scientist
Quantum entanglement offers a new way to transmit information by linking the quantum properties of two objects such that a change to one is instantly reflected in the other. Entanglement has been used to securely share pass phrases for secret communications, but only over distances of less than 200 kilometers. The inability of quantum memory to hold onto information for more than a fraction of a second is to blame. Now a way to have that memory store quantum information could allow entangled communication over longer distances. Quantum information is stored in qubits. But reading out the state of a qubit changes that state. Holding onto a memory even for a fraction of a second is difficult for qubits. That limits the distance over which entanglement can be used because the state of one qubit must be copied to a distant qubit. The message is carried by photons which only travel at light speed. If the first qubit has forgotten the quantum state it transmitted by the time the photons reach their destination, entanglement cannot happen. The first qubit must hold onto its memory long enough for the second to match it. Scientists have now succeeded in creating quantum memories that last several milliseconds.

2008 December 16

"When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. Almost five years in the making, there was something mythical about the novel even before it had been published. Within a month The Satanic Verses had been banned in Rushdie's native India. And then on 14 February 1989 came the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa."
Kenan Malik, Spiked

AR  I bought and read The Satanic Verses 20 years ago. Judged in literary terms, it is an excellent piece of work. For what it's worth,
I didn't find it blasphemous.

2008 December 15

Hitler's personal library reveals more than words

2008 December 14

My cut of a Giles Fraser blog commenting on Friedrich Nietzsche philosophizing on the genealogy of morals

2008 December 12

Robots Everywhere by 2020?
Science Daily
Spanish researchers have carried out a study looking into the potential future impact of robots on society. They interviewed international experts working on inventing and adapting cutting edge robots for practical use. All agreed on 2020 as a technological inflection point. This will follow a revolution in robotics that will make us see robots as everyday tools. New areas of robot use will open up. In a medical context, exoskeletons will help disabled people move. Robots will be inserted into our bodies, for example as intelligent implants in the brain. Robots will replace people working in the areas of security and defense. Robots will be intelligent machines to be incorporated into both domestic and industrial life. Robots will replace workers exposed to dangerous or unhealthy environments. People will have emotional and even intimate interactions with social robots. New services will arise to design and maintain the robots. Incorporating robots into society will result in a divide between companies and people who can afford to buy robots and those who cannot.

2008 December 10

Milky Way's Big Black Hole Really Exists
Astronomers say they have discovered conclusive proof of the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* at the heart of the galaxy. The 16-year study involved tracking the movement of 28 stars at the center of the Milky Way using telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The astronomers were able to calculate several properties of the black hole. Professor Reinhard Genzel, who led the study at the German Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, said the data collected proved the existence of the black hole beyond any reasonable doubt.
AR  Now we can give black hole theorist Stephen Hawking his well deserved Nobel Prize.

Does Quantum Spacetime Delay Gamma Rays?
Science News
NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope has unveiled the activity of celestial objects that emit powerful gamma rays. Peter Michelson and Aurelien Bouvier presented some of the discoveries on December 8. Some of the new findings focus on gamma-ray bursts, the ephemeral flashes of light that signal the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang. A time delay of 5 s between the onset of high- and low-energy emissions in a burst discovered on September 19 suggests that the high-energy gamma rays from bursts might have a different origin than the lower-energy radiation. A speculative theory of quantum gravity could explain at least part of the delay, Bouvier said. The highest energy (13 GeV) photons from the September 19 event arrived 16.5 s later than the lowest energy emissions. Spectra of the visible-light afterglow of the burst reveal an origin 12.2 billion light-years from Earth. Some theories of quantum gravity predict that because spacetime is like a foamy sea on its tiniest scale, not all photons would travel at the same speed. Those with higher frequencies would travel more slowly. The effect would be tiny, but over billions of light-years it might be detectable.
AR  Exactly this effect was predicted by loop quantum gravity theorist Lee Smolin.

2008 December 9

Chris Hitchens fires a heartfelt broadside on Mumbai

2008 December 8

Pakistan's Spies Aided Group Tied to Mumbai Siege
The New York Times
Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group suspected of conducting the Mumbai attacks, has quietly gained strength in recent years with the help of Pakistan's main spy service, assistance that has allowed the group to train and raise money while other militants have been under siege, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say. The spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, has shared intelligence with Lashkar and provided protection for it, the officials said.

Pakistan Spy Head Linked to Terror Groups
The Times of India
Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency said that the United States wants him on a UN list of people and organizations linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban. The agency is currently under scrutiny because of its past links with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir jihadi organization that India and US officials suspect supplied the gunmen who killed more than 160 people in the attack on Mumbai.

2008 December 7

Asma Assad, Syrian First Lady
Margarette Driscoll, The Sunday Times

From the moment she married Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, eight years ago, British-born Asma Assad caused ripples. The first thing she did was to disappear from public view for three months to travel around the country incognito to assess Syria's problems for herself and get to know people. Now she is 33, and the Assads have three children.

Asma Assad is the daughter of a prominent cardiologist and grew up in London, where she won a first in computer science at King's College London. She spent two years at Deutsche Bank, then joined JP Morgan. Her mother was first secretary at the Syrian embassy in London, and her family home is in western Syria.

Her husband was never meant to be president. His father Hafez seized power in 1970 and the presidency was expected to pass to his oldest son, Basil. Bashar studied medicine and moved to London to specialize in ophthalmology. Then Basil was killed in a car crash in 1994, and Bashar assumed office when his father died in 2000.

Bashar has quietly liberalized what was a stolid, socialist economy, welcomed private banks and foreign investment, and begun to open up the internet. Asma talks fluently of Syria's economic situation and the overhaul of its education system.

The Idea of Pakistan
By Stephen P. Cohen
Brookings Institution Press

Pakistan is close to becoming a failed state. Anti-American sentiments are on the rise. Its population is growing by 2.9 percent annually and is set to reach 219 million by 2015. The large youth bulge will find no economic opportunity in their country. In the last two decades Pakistan's economy has declined considerably, resulting in a governmental policy of ignoring issues such as health, education, and other social services that compete with the military budget. According to Cohen, Pakistan is run by an establishment comprised of the senior ranks of the military, the civil service, key members of the judiciary, and other elites. This group believes that India has to be countered, nuclear weapons have secured Pakistan, Kashmir is the unfinished part of the partition plan, major social reforms are unacceptable, vocal Islamic nationalism is desirable, and Washington should not be trusted.
Freely adapted from a review by Rizwan Zeb

2008 December 6

Robert Gates on US national defense strategy
The British character has deteriorated, says Theodore Dalrymple

Pakistanis Mistrust India
Candace Rondeaux, Washington Post

As more details emerge about alleged Pakistani links to the three-day siege in India's financial capital last week, a rare national unity is coalescing in Pakistan, centered on its old enemy. Tensions with India have prompted pledges of support for the government even from the Taliban, the growing insurgent force based on the tribal agencies of the country's North-West Frontier Province. This week, several leaders of armed Islamist groups in that region vowed to lay down their arms against the government and stand with Pakistan's military in the event of a clash with India. Pakistani intelligence officials said they welcomed the offers of support.

Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has been ruled by a succession of military generals, wavering all the while between war and tense detente with India. Civilian governments have historically been short-lived and widely seen as ineffectual against threats to national security. Overwhelmed by economic crisis and the threat from insurgents, the new civilian government has failed to mend the country's divisions and bring the military establishment to heel. Samina Ahmed, Pakistan director for the International Crisis Group, said conflict with India will remain imminent until the clash between the military and civilian cultures is resolved in Pakistan.

2008 December 1

Heading Off Doomsday
Anatole Kaletsky, The Times
The rally in global stock markets and the rebound in currencies began within minutes of a leak that Barack Obama was about to announce his new Treasury team: Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and Paul Volcker. At last the US economy would be put under adult supervision by competent economists. The new economic team's decision that the Fed could refinance the US mortgage and consumer credit market immediately triggered a drop in mortgage rates and an increase in the supply of new lending. The Obama team may have stopped Henry Paulson's Doomsday Machine.

Swedish Schools
Richard Garner, The Independent
The big difference between the education system in Sweden and the UK is that in Sweden parents are given an educational voucher for each child, and they use that voucher to apply for any school they want to. Bertil Ostoberg, the Swedish Secretary of State for Education, said the scheme provides freedom of choice for parents and pupils and that competition has led to higher quality in the system. The number of schools that are run by private companies and are allowed to make a profit has increased dramatically.

Model V2 rocket

A German rocket enthusiast
with his model V2 at a meet
in the USA shows how peaceful
the craft of rocketry can be

Anton Zeilinger
Anton Zeilinger

Honda robot
Honda robot

Hatf 5

Pakistani Ghauri missile


The Dalai Lama believes
a life of celibacy offers
more peace of mind

VI Day

Do US forces deserve a "VI Day" to achieve closure on an expensive mess?


Albatross DV, Lt Friedrich Ritter von Roth, Jasta 23B, 1918

NASA Fermi telescope

NASA Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST):
now the Fermi telescope

2008 November 30

Resurrecting Books
James Gleick, The New York Times

Authors, publishers and Google have reached a historic agreement to allow the scanning and digitizing of the world's books. The class action suit Authors Guild versus Google was filed in 2005 when Google embarked on a program of digitizing every book it could get its hands on. Now over seven million titles have been scanned. Many are in the public domain and many are still available in bookstores, but millions of them are protected by copyright yet out of print. The authors have persuaded Google to bring these millions back to commercial life. Under the agreement, any money made from these books will go mostly to the rights-holders. The book world is being resurrected.

The Worst Is Yet To Come
A Banker, The New York Times

We are bailing out the banks because of their greedy and deceptive lending practices in the mortgage industry. As people begin to lose their jobs, they will not be able to pay their credit card bills either. Over my career, I have seen thousands of consumers that have credit card lines in excess of their annual salaries. Some are sinking under their burden. The banks reel in the consumer and lure them into overextending. This has got to stop. Default rates are on the rise. If Congress doesn't act today, the bankers will asking to be bailed out once again with our tax dollars.

Kenneth Branagh is Kurt Wallander
Paul Hoggart, The Times

Say hello to Inspector Kurt Wallander, the new detective on the TV block. Dark Scandinavian thrillers are a seething sub-genre within crime fiction, but Henning Mankell's sleuth is a global phenomenon, translated into 40 languages. In Germany he outsells Harry Potter.

Wallander's domestic life is a shambles, because his mind seems to be constantly elsewhere, turning over the details of his cases as he tries to make small-talk over tea and rye-bread. Kenneth Branagh's performance is understated, ruminative, warm, sensitive and depressed. Mankell himself has seen the first episode and said he "liked it enormously".

2008 November 25

Paul Krugman on the crisis and how to survive it

2008 November 23

US Finance Gurus Get Risk All Wrong
Benoit Mandelbrot, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fortune Magazine, July 11, 2005

The economic world is driven primarily by random jumps. Yet the common tools of finance were designed for random walks in which the market always moves in baby steps. Despite increasing empirical evidence that concentration and jumps better characterize market reality, the reliance on the random walk, the bell-shaped curve, and their spawn of alphas and betas is accelerating, widening a tragic gap between reality and the standard tools of financial measurement.

A better theory is needed, and one exists: the fractal theory of risk, ruin, and return. In this approach, concentration and random jumps are not belated fudges but the point of departure. ... In bell-curve finance, the chance of big drops is vanishingly small and is thus ignored. The 1987 stock market crash was, according to such models, something that could happen only once in several billion billion years. In power-law finance, big drops — while certainly less likely than small ones — remain a real and calculable possibility.

Fractal finance, alas, has not yet earned a place in the MBA curriculum. Until that happy day, what is a person with money at stake to do? ... Understand that conventional measures of risk severely underestimate potential losses — and gains. For better or worse, your exposure is larger than you think.

US Justice
Conrad Black, The Sunday Times

I write to you from a US federal prison. It is a little like going back to boarding school, which I somewhat enjoyed nearly 50 years ago and is a sharp change of pace after 16 years as chairman of The Daily Telegraph. My appeal continues. Given the putrefaction of the US justice system, it is an honour to fight this out. The initial allegation against me of a "$500m corporate kleptocracy" has shrunk to a false finding against me of the underdocumented receipt of $2.9m. There is no evidence to support this charge.

US federal prosecutors, almost all of whom would be disbarred for their antics if they were in Britain or Canada, win more than 90% of their cases thanks to the withering of the constitutional guarantees of due process. The system is based on the plea bargain: the barefaced exchange of incriminating testimony for immunity or a reduced sentence. It is intimidation and suborned or extorted perjury, an outright rape of any plausible definition of justice.

2008 November 22

The international system will be almost unrecognizable by 2025

2008 November 21

Petaflops supercomputers
Understanding the genome

2008 November 16

"Use it or lose it. The plasticity of the brain means that it is able, in the face of injury or decay, to find ways of adapting itself to preserve strong patterns of activity. Read books, good books — nothing works better."
Bryan Appleyard on buffing the brain

"Autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder appear with schizophrenia on Mom's side, while Asperger's syndrome and other social deficits are on Dad's."
Benedict Carey on mental disorders

2008 November 15

"Researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours, which is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."
Malcolm Gladwell on extreme achievement

2008 November 14

HRH Prince Charles
Prince Charles, 60 today, posing as a Ruritanian waxwork

Without God, is all permitted?
Paul Bloom, Slate

Psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff say their experimental finding that religious people are more generous than atheists is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. But the Danes and the Swedes are probably the most godless people on Earth, yet they're nice to one another.

The Danes and the Swedes have strong communities. In fact, most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They just don't believe in God. Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved. The sorry state of American atheists may be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country.

Norenzayan and Shariff say they found that only in contexts where the reputations of participants are at stake do religious folk tend to act more generously than their nonreligious peers. And they point out that communal solidarity can benefit members while wreaking havoc on those who fall on the wrong side of group boundaries. The important part of religion is the people around you, not the gods above.

2008 November 13

Ludwig Wittgenstein began by trying to reduce all mathematics to logic and ended by finding most metaphysics to be nonsense.
His family was a disaster

2008 November 11

Naomi the Novelist
Sarah Birke, The Times
A Borders survey of the 150 bestselling authors found they were evenly distributed across the zodiac signs ... according to Borders' fiction buyer: "One literary Gemini who wasn't included is the supermodel Naomi Campbell, whose novel Swan is considered to be one of the worst books ever written."

AR Many years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I was in search of a publisher for my blockbuster sci-fi novel Lifeball. As I summoned the courage to approach the booth of a major British publisher, I was ungraciously crowded out by an excited throng surrounding Naomi Campbell, who there and then signed the contract for her novel Swan. Hah!

Galilean Relativity
Mitchell J. Feigenbaum, Rockefeller University
The Lorentz transformations and the kinematic content and dynamical framework of special relativity are an extension of Galileo's thoughts. The theories of relativity are logically independent of any properties of light. The thoughts of Galileo are fully realized in a system of Lorentz transformations with a parameter 1/c2 as a universal constant of nature.

AR As a teenager, I read about relativity many times as I tried to get my head around it. Later it began to seem much less strange. Still, I thought, Galileo almost had it and maybe photons travel at slightly less than speed c. So I guess Feigenbaum is right, but now I have to find time to read his paper and check the details.

2008 November 9

Billionaire George Soros explains the financial crisis

2008 November 7

Light on Dark Matter
Steve Connor, The Independent
A team of cosmologists believes it has found a way of discovering what the universe is made of. About 85 per cent is neither stars nor planets but some form of dark matter. Now the problem may soon be solved, thanks to the results of a vast computer simulation of the Milky Way galaxy that has provided the first cosmic map of where dark matter can be found. The results, published in Nature, took 3.5 million hours of computer processing time to calculate. They predict that there are regions near the center of the Milky Way where dark matter will emit a glow of gamma radiation that could be detected by the Fermi telescope launched by NASA earlier this year.

2008 November 6

Michael Eisenstadt asserts that Obama will be a wartime president

2008 November 5

Barack Obama

The Next President

The New York Times
Showing extraordinary focus and quiet certainty, Mr. Obama swept away one political presumption after another. His triumph was decisive and sweeping, because he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens. He offered a government that does not try to solve every problem but will do those things beyond the power of individual citizens: to regulate the economy fairly, keep the air clean and the food safe, ensure that the sick have access to health care, and educate children to compete in a globalized world. Mr. Obama spoke candidly of the failure of Republican economic policies that promised to lift all Americans but left so many millions far behind. He committed himself to ending a bloody and pointless war. He promised to restore Americans’ civil liberties and their tattered reputation around the world.

Does Obama have a Jewish soul?
Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post
Abner Mikva, 82, is an elder statesman on Chicago's South Side. Mikva went to the University of Chicago's Law School and served in the Illinois House of Representatives and in the US Congress from 1969 until 1979. He was something of a mentor to Obama as the Illinois state senator made his first move into national politics in 2000. They became close friends earlier on the University of Chicago campus where they were both teaching law. Regarding concern in Israel about an Obama presidency, Mikva said: "Barack will be the first Jewish president in the US. He has a yiddishe nishama [Jewish soul]. He is committed to Israel and its security concerns and understands that democratization does not happen by force but by example, and there is no better example in the Middle East than Israel."

2008 November 4

Manned mission to Mars boost after British breakthrough
Richard Alleyne, Daily Telegraph
A manned mission to Mars is a step closer to reality after British scientists overcame one of its biggest obstacles — shielding astronauts from deadly solar storms. British researchers believe they have come up with a practical solution by mimicking the Earth's own protection — a magnetic field that deflects the fatal particles. Professor Bob Bingham, a theoretical physicist at the University of Strathclyde, said the team were currently patenting their technology and could have a working prototype within five years. "This system creates a Magnetic Field Bubble that would deflect the dangerous radiation away from the spacecraft."

2008 November 3

Is Richard Dawkins a recruiter for creationism?
Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian
In 2006, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, a scorching manifesto for secularism. Even by the standards of Dawkins' 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene, it was a spectacular success, with sales exceeding 1.5 million.
When I ask Dawkins, now 67, if he feels that public understanding of science has improved during his career, he looks doubtful. In his view, there is a battle taking place in Britain between the forces of reason and religious fundamentalism, and it is far from won. In fact, Dawkins has been described as "the biggest recruiter for creationism in this country". Critics accuse him of an imaginative failure when it comes to human nature's susceptibility to the comfort of irrational thought.
Dawkins has a theory about this. "We've all been brought up with the view that religion has some kind of special privileged status. You're not allowed to criticise it. And therefore, if you offer even a fairly mild criticism, it really does sound strident, because it violates this expectation that religion is out of bounds." Like most rationalists, Dawkins tends to invoke people's innate intelligence, and attribute their flawed ways of thinking to ignorance rather than stupidity. "But I don't have any evidence," he concedes.

2008 November 2

Kenneth Branagh stars in BBC series of Kurt Wallander stories
James Rampton, Sunday Telegraph
Ystad, on the southern tip of Sweden, is a quiet seaside town. But in the bestselling detective fiction of Henning Mankell, there is a crime rate to match Los Angeles. Standing between Ystad and anarchy is detective Kurt Wallander. The BBC has snapped up the rights to Mankell's novels and turned them into a gripping series starring Kenneth Branagh. Branagh brings real depth to the character, a troubled man profoundly affected by the crimes he witnesses. When I arrive in Ystad, the 60-year-old Mankell is on set. "I have seen some of the footage and I'm enormously impressed," he says. The books, which go under the umbrella title of The Kurt Wallander Mysteries, are a global phenomenon, selling 25 million copies.

2008 November 1

Kant believes that punishment must be retributive. We should punish wrongdoers to the degree that matches the gravity of their crime, including the death penalty for murderers. For Kant, what matters above all is respecting the inner core of moral personhood we all carry within us. And justice means holding moral agents responsible for their actions.
Michael Rosen on Allen Wood on Immanuel Kant

Quants precipitated
Wall Street collapse
"The software models [that triggered the financial crisis] estimate the level of financial risk of a portfolio for a set period at a certain confidence level. As Benoit Mandelbrot, the fractal pioneer who is a longtime critic of mainstream financial theory, wrote in Scientific American in 1999, established modeling techniques presume falsely that radically large market shifts are unlikely and that all price changes are statistically independent; today's fluctuations have nothing to do with tomorrow's - and one bank's portfolio is unrelated to the next's. Here is where reality and rocket science diverge."
Scientific American
Mandelbrot agrees with Soros

Standard Model seems OK
A team of European researchers undertook the task of calculating the mass of hadrons, such as protons and neutrons, from the bottom up, using the basic assumptions of quantum chromodynamics, the theory of how gluons bind quarks together via the strong nuclear force. Physicist Stephan Dürr of the John von Neumann Institute for Computing in Jülich, Germany, and his collaborators broke down space and time into a four-dimensional lattice, then extrapolated what the subatomic world would look like, virtual particles and all, as the spacing of the lattice spacing shrank to zero. The masses Dürr and his co-authors found via their supercomputer aligned closely with experimental observation, helping to confirm that the Standard Model is on the right track.
Scientific American

Spad XIII, Eddie Rickenbacker, 94th Pursuit Squadron, 1918

Gamma-ray sky
NASA/DOE/International LAT Team
Gamma-ray sky revealed by GLAST, now Fermi

The Singularity Is Near

The 21st century will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity. The ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable.
In this forthcoming movie, futurist Ray Kurzweil presents a view of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of technological ingenuity and an inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny.

2008 October 28

Chris Hitchens on Sarah Palin's ignorance

2008 October 27

Brains unveiled — stunning images

2008 October 26

New capitalism
Irwin Stelzer, The Sunday Times
The world of finance capitalism will change. Rating agencies will become more parsimonious about issuing triple-A ratings. Mortgage originators will retain some of the default risk associated with the loans they write. Banks will have more shareholder capital behind the loans they make. And throughout capital markets, transparency will be the watchword.

Jacking into the brain
Gary Stix, Scientific American
We do not yet understand the mechanisms of neural functioning needed to feed information into the brain. This may require inserting electrodes directly into tissue. Unraveling the neural code is difficult. Writing to the brain may remain a dream lost in cyberspace.

2008 October 22

Algis Budrys wrote wonderful stories about identity and alienation

2008 October 21

Keynes is not enough, Mr Darling
Dominic Lawson, The Independent
Public debt in the UK is no less than 127 per cent of GDP. Since a dramatic increase in public expenditure above these levels would lead to a run on the pound, the Chancellor is casting around for someone other than the Government to do the pump-priming. His eyes have lit on the humiliated commercial banks. Alistair Darling believed that he had no choice but to help recapitalise the banks, but he needed an undertaking by the banks to be nice. The new Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson of Foy, has the right idea.

2008 October 16

Were quants responsible for the financial crisis?
Sean Dodson, The Guardian

The people who write the software that drove the derivatives markets that drove the financial collapse are called quantities analysts. These "quants" are generally physics and mathematics graduates working in risk management and derivatives pricing, which entails putting a figure on trades that bet on other trades.

As Richard Dooling wrote in the New York Times: "Somehow the genius quants — the best and brightest geeks Wall Street firms could buy — fed $1 trillion in subprime mortgage debt into their supercomputers, added some derivatives, massaged the arrangements with computer algorithms and — poof! — created
$62 trillion in imaginary wealth."

As George Dyson (son of the quantum physicist Freeman) wrote in Edge: "The problem starts, as the current crisis demonstrates, when unregulated replication is applied to money itself. Highly complex computer-generated financial instruments (known as derivatives) are being produced, not from natural factors of production or other goods, but purely from other financial instruments."

Thirty Meter Telescope

The new Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT, above) is planned to be built over the next decade. Its optics system will use about six lasers to measure atmospheric turbulence. An array of lasers can provide a 3D picture of distortions over a wide area and at different heights in the atmosphere. The wave-front sensors will have small apertures for precise measurements, and thousands of actuators will control a large number of tiny adaptive mirrors.

2008 October 14

Einstein never quite grokked the quantum boys' physics

2008 October 12

Peter Berkowitz offers a careful study of Hobbes' Leviathan

2008 October 9

Still no TV channels or web connectivity in my new apartment


SAP has place in clouds
Panelists at the Cloud Summit Executive conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, say cloud computing is coming. SAP CTO Vishal Sikka said large enterprise software makers like SAP have a place in clouds. Cloud computing has the following core characteristics: transparent scalability, usage-based billing, and off-premises operation.

Is Religion Prosocial?
A. Norenzayan, A.F. Shariff

Religion encourages people to sacrifice their individual fitness for the benefit of unrelated individuals or for their group. Being watched by a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky tends to make believers nervous about being selfish. The larger a society, the more likely its members believe in deities that are concerned about human morality. A Big-Brother-in-the-Sky can watch how your fellow citizens behave when you can't. But the modern world is headed toward a transparent society in which social monitoring will be omnipresent. Sky Big Brother is being outsourced to the Web.